My friend Paula, who writes the blog Welcoming Spirit, recently challenged her readers to take on a discipline for thirty days. I am a week into mine and I’ll tell you, it’s not going so well. You’d think a priest would be better at remembering to pray at meals. I mean, look at the Eucharistic meal — I pray for a solid five minutes before anyone gets to eat anything. But for some reason or other, I’m just not that disciplined at praying before my three squares a day.
Well, not “some reason or other.” Honestly, I know the reasons. When I lived at home with my parents, we had our dinnertime rites. We tried not to answer the phone, though the thirty second pause to listen for the machine made that rule laughably futile. We always put our napkins on our laps and kept our elbows off the table. And we always prayed. (My father usually tapped the person who unsuccessfully failed to make eye contact with him. If everyone succeeded, he led the prayer.)
Now that I live on my own and take most of my meals alone, I have yet to develop the discipline of thanking God for all of God’s blessings, of which the meal is a palpable reminder. I am one week into my intentional practice, and I am doing dreadfully. I’m two for two today, but over the course of the week, I can’t have remembered more than three out of ten. That average would be great if I were a baseball player, since no other job in the universe measures success at thirty percent.
But I’m not a baseball player. I’m a priest. I’m supposed to be the one who remembers to pray — 100% of the time. Prayers should be the first words that spring to my lips in the morning and the last ones to whisper out when I fall asleep. Prayer should be as natural as breathing, should happen with each of my breaths.
It doesn’t, God knows. Too often, I just forget to pray. Not the best example, I know. Neither were the disciples, and from them I take a measure of hope. They follow Jesus around, they hear his words, they cast out demons and heal the sick. But they only get it three out of ten times. They bicker about which is the greatest, they bar people’s access to Jesus, and they abandon him.
I’m not saying that the disciples’ example gives me a free pass. They mess up, they misunderstand, but Jesus stays in relationship with them. He even repairs his relationship with Simon Peter after this most adamant follower denies him three times. Peter, do you love me? You know I do, Lord. Then feed my sheep.*
Jesus has invested way too much time and energy in me to give up now. Indeed, his resurrection shows me that he’ll never give up on me, even after I die. Everyday, he invites me into a deeper relationship with him, and I usually ignore the invitation. I prefer, instead, to wade in the shallow end, to make sure my feet can touch the bottom.
But there are those days — few and far between — that I acknowledge my apathy and ask God to help me float into the deeper waters. And I find the strength to accept the invitation.
As I write this, one of my favorite songs from my college years is playing on my Itunes. The chorus of Jennifer Knapp’s “Hold Me Now” goes like this: “I’m weak, I’m poor. I’m broken, Lord, but I’m yours. Hold me now.”
My apathy and forgetfulness about praying before meals (among other things) stem from my grasping, prideful illusion that I need not rely on God. Perhaps, deep down, I don’t really believe that God will claim me if I’m weak or poor or broken. But that’s not how God operates. Nothing I do will elevate me past weakness or paucity or brokenness. Only when I allow God to hold me in the palm of God’s hand can I find strength. Only when I take part in the relationship into which Jesus calls me can I find abundance. Only when I let go the illusion can I see the reality of God making me whole.
Praying before meals may seem like a small step, but it is an essential one. It creates a pattern, a practice, a discipline. If I remember to pause even three times a day to thank God for God’s presence in my life, then perhaps my illusory self-reliance will begin to fall away. Perhaps I’ll remember that God has blessed me to be a blessing to others. Perhaps I’ll hear Jesus ask, “Adam, do you love me?”
And I’ll be able to say, “You know I do, Lord.”
Then feed my sheep.